"It was a misty Sunday morning but there was no mistaking the splendour of the setting as 75 women plunged into the Chandping Reservoir at the start of the 2006 Beijing Triathlon World Cup. Two hours later, Britain’s Andrea Whitcombe and Vanessa Raw had both finished in the Top Ten and the Chinese had proved that the venue was more than capable of hosting a world class event. In less than two years it will be the site of the Beijing Olympic Triathlon competition.
I was there as a result of an invitation to UK Sport from our ‘opposite numbers’ in China: the Central Administration for Sport. Over five hectic days my colleagues and I met with many officials from within BOCOG and the Central Administration, and saw for ourselves the incredible construction that is underway in the capital as they prepare for their global sporting showcase. I doubt anyone reading this is unaware of the incredible design of the main stadium and – just as breathtaking now it is taking shape – the nearby Aquatics centre.
But as the body responsible for leading the development of our athletes into the Games, what was critical for UK Sport was to try and get a sense of the way the Chinese are preparing themselves for the Games, the nature of the environment our athletes will encounter, and what lessons we can start learning now for London 2012.
In some areas matching the sheer scale of the Chinese system is impossible. We saw facilities in Beijing, Shanghai and Macau – where the British Olympic Association is currently planning its pre-games holding camp – that were not necessarily even for national level athletes and yet they were truly world class. The Shanghai Training Centre, for example, a dedicated site about 45 minutes out of the city centre, has two separate Volleyball halls for men and women that would easily function as multi-sport centres in many towns in this country.
We also witnessed the seemingly endless pipeline of future athletes available to the Chinese team. A good example is Table Tennis. It may be the national sport, but there was no mistaking the close attention being paid to the creation of future champions. A single hall in Shanghai housed around 30 tables, each being used by students only just entering their teens and not yet considered any better than provincial standard. As the balls spun viciously from one side to the other, the sheer intensity and scale of the training was impressive. So was the knowledge that a school of 600 pupils had 60 coaches employed – an enviable ratio at such a critical time in a young athlete’s development. The knowledge that similar Sports Schools across each province had similar levels of resources only served to underline to us how difficult it is to compete against.
But compete we must if we are to achieve our goals in Beijing and then more pertinently on home soil four years later. What the experience above and several like it proved to me is that we are right to focus our resources firmly on those areas that are most likely to gain success.
This is the basis of our ‘no compromise’ approach to investment – committing to support our sports and athletes on the basis of their international competitiveness and likely medal return.
That does not mean turning our backs on any sports – indeed we are currently investing in some very promising junior Table Tennis players of our own and it is only just over a week since we enjoyed a stunning medal return at the world championships of another sport very dear to Chinese hearts – Badminton. Equally we are seeking to invest around £4 million in Volleyball in this country between now and 2009 in the first wave of funding designed to bring that sport up to international competition standards by the London Olympic Games.
What it does mean is that for us to meet our goals we do have to remain ruthless in our targeting and prioritizing of 2012 investment at both Olympic and Paralympic level. It also means being strategic about where the likely weaknesses of our competitors lie – in Beijing for example there was an acknowledgement from our hosts that they still had some way to go with some sports – not least the more technical disciplines such as Sailing, Rowing and Equestrian at which we excel.
More than anything it means we must stay true to our vision for medal success in 2012 and do everything we can in partnership with the sports, the Institutes and other bodies such as BOA and BPA to create the environment in which young athletes now can reach their full potential in six years’ time.
There is no doubt the passion is there. In a Macau swimming pool we watched Great Britain’s young Synchronised Swimmers training. After a period of intense and impressive work on their routine they broke for a rest – a dedicated group of nine 16-18 year olds. Talking to them there was only one thing on their minds. Are you aiming for London 2012 we asked? Their reply: We’re going to win gold! We mustn’t fail them."
This article was originally published in this week's 'Insidethegames' newsletter. For more information, please follow the link below.